Are you a Wi-Fi pirate?

John Patrick: As the Wi-Fi umbrella grows wider, boosted by technological advances such as a can on a roof, it's easy to tap into a signal that you're not paying for. Is this right?

Stopping for a bite to eat in a small New England town, was I ever surprised to find a Wi-Fi connection available at 1.2 megabits per second. Where was this bandwidth coming from? No idea. Who was paying for this bandwidth? Same answer.

One thing, though, was very clear: the advent of Wi-Fi is about to change all of our lives in a major -- and positive -- way. I'll go further: Wi-Fi is one of those grassroots phenomena that will soon become as ubiquitous as the PC itself. The latest laptops have Wi-Fi antennas built into the lids, while the wireless access points, which send and receive the Wi-Fi signals, now cost less than $100.

Communications from the PC to the Internet or to another PC are as fast and reliable as wired local area networks in businesses.

The range of Wi-Fi is about the same as the cordless phone -- approximately 300 feet -- or it was until some enterprising young people discovered they could make a long-distance antenna from a potato-crisp can. With less than ten dollars worth of parts, the antenna can be constructed and put on a roof, thus making it possible for people to use the high-speed Internet connectivity at their place of employment -- from their home or apartment miles away.

People are using their Wi-Fi-enabled laptops in conference rooms, at home on the deck and at the local Starbucks. But this is the tip of the iceberg. Think about all the places where you have to "wait" -- the car shop, medical offices, hotel lobbies, restaurants, hospital check-in areas and, of course, on a bus, train and in airport lounges.

Think about the concept of community services. When people go downtown, they naturally expect the local infrastructure to include streetlights, fire hydrants and parking spaces. Soon, I believe, they also will expect Wi-Fi connectivity. Sitting on a city park bench and checking email will not seem so strange; in fact, it will be something people demand.

Not that everyone needs to be connected all the time, tethered to the Internet. But if people want or need to be connected to the Internet, they should be able to plug in. The Internet has transferred power from institutions to people. Isn't it time to enable this power to become pervasive?

The mysterious source of bandwidth at my sandwich shop may have come from a nearby office upstairs or from across the street, operating without any encryption that would thwart others from using their Internet connection. But increasingly, you're finding apartment dwellers willing to share their Internet connections with neighbours using Wi-Fi.

Meanwhile, many start-ups are building services to enable Wi-Fi to operate much like our cellphones -- hopping from cell to cell as we move about. Community groups are linking satellite connections to Wi-Fi networks in remote areas where DSL and cable are not available.

The issues, which are many, include security, privacy, business models and the scalability of the infrastructure. If you had listed the issues and concerns about the Internet in 1993 it would have been the same list! But just like the Internet of ten years ago, the emergence of Wi-Fi is a grassroots trend that is irreversible.

The fee structure and relationship to local phone companies will also get worked out. Existing infrastructure companies that fail to understand that the rise of community-based wireless networks will drive up total network usage -- and long-term revenue -- will get pushed aside by new entrants into the market.

Should we consider the diversion of Internet bandwidth at the sandwich shop an instance of stealing? You can come at this question from several perspectives.

If you take unlicensed software without permission of the owner, you have possession and can use it at your will. If you "take" a Wi-Fi signal that someone has made available, you can only use it when you are in range of the wireless access point. What's more, you can only use it when the owner of that access point has consciously (or unconsciously) made it available to others.

Whether you should "take" the signal is another question. What does the owner of the wireless access point intend? If they turn on encryption and you hack your way into it then I would say that is stealing. The owner clearly does not want somebody to use the signal. At this stage, the "stealing" going on is mostly a result of wireless access point owners not being aware of what's really going on.

Has the "free lunch" arrived? In the Internet's early days, many people thought it was free. That misunderstanding eventually got cleared up. So it is that community wireless networks will hopefully continue to spread. All that's now needed are business models that can make this happen.

John Patrick was vice president of Internet technology at IBM when he retired in 2001 after 34 years with the company. Patrick keeps a Web log about technology.

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